The conventional wisdom is that those voters taking the hardest line on immigration are already Republican, so taking a hard line may not win votes, just keep them. But the Hispanics vote – 6 percent of the total voting population in America – might be up for grabs. There are nearly a dozen congressional races that analysts say are too close to call – and Democrats only need a net gain of six seats to reclaim control of the House. As the Pew numbers suggest, immigration may turn substantial numbers of Hispanic voters off of the GOP.
"In close races, every vote counts," Rep. Dan Lungren (R-CA) says. "So, yes, the Hispanic vote matters. It really matters."
But there is no clear evidence that Democrats are taking advantage of any Hispanic dissatisfaction. Even congressional Democrats' "Hispanic agenda," while critical of Republican immigration efforts and the House bill, mostly just calls for supporting the Senate bill.
While Hispanics generally vote Democratic by a two-to-one margin, the Pew Hispanic Center poll indicated that Hispanics who are registered as Republicans still plan to vote for Republican candidates in the fall. This still leaves the "undecided" Hispanic vote – the large number of Hispanics who are independent, or who are registered Democrats and crossed party lines in the last election. Will they do so again this fall?
The answer depends upon whom you ask.
"I haven't seen any erosion of support for the president or the Republican Party in my district," says Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, who represents the generally pro-GOP 21st District in South Florida. "I think the president and the party are seen as pro-Hispanic. Every president has suffered a drop in popularity during his sixth year in office – that's a historical fact. But, I think Hispanics feel that President Bush's heart is in the right place."
However, Representative Lungren says the Democrats have simply done a better job in the battlefield of public relations. "It's frustrating for me because I feel the values of most Hispanics line up with Republican values of family, education, and national security," he says. "But, the Democrats have done a great job in portraying us as anti-immigrant and anti-Hispanic. We've allowed ourselves to be caricatured during the debate on the House bill. We need to do a much better job of reaching out."
Representative Diaz-Balart says that part of the problem has been that the media has treated the issue too simply, and in the process painted Republicans as anti-Hispanic. "The truth is, you can be a Republican and be for shutting the borders, and you can be a Republican and be supportive of pathways to legalization, which is what I'm for," he says. "The Republican Party is a huge coalition of voters; a diverse party with many differing views. The media seems to have a difficult time grasping that fact."
A case can be made that neither party excites the majority of Hispanic voters. Hispanic confidence in both parties has dropped by about 5 percent each in the past two years, according to the Pew Hispanic poll.
Part of the reason is that immigration reform was put aside so deftly as the elections loomed. An emotional, multifaceted issue with no clear-cut resolution, it's exactly the kind of problem no politician likes to address in a stump speech.
Many analysts believe that discussion of immigration reform may be restricted this fall to the promise of candidates to seal the borders against terrorists. The fact that terrorists involved in the 9/11 attack were in the United States legally illustrates how complicated the issue can get.
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